Coronavirus and the outbreak of fake news
The world is awash with information concerning COVID-19, some points more useful than others.
It seems that life is saturated with new acronyms, terminology and abbreviations thanks to the unprecedented spread of this virus. Thinking back to pre-Christmas 2019, few could have explained the distinct difference between an epidemic and pandemic (an epidemic that occurs across multiple geographical areas at the same time) and even less would perhaps be familiar with the term “WFH” (work from home).
Even the terminology used to describe the virus itself is confusing: the coronaviruses are a family of pathogens. This particular one (being related to the one that caused the Sars outbreak of 2002-3) is identified as SARS-CoV-2, which was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. COVID-19 is the respiratory syndrome that the virus SARS-Cov-2 causes, (like Aids is to HIV).
As the world’s scientific experts learn more about this novel virus on a daily basis, as quick as the facts emerge, so do the fake news pieces, conspiracies and wildly sensationalised stories.
The spread of misinformation is dangerous and can lead to harmful consequences, but fortunately there are a number of ways to distinguish the facts from the falsities.
Many fake news stories can be discounted using logical common sense, but others are not quite so simple to spot. Some may present a seemingly plausible story or provide information that appears to align with specific points of view.
Other misinformation stories arise from wrongly interpreted scientific literature, or a failing to place evidence into the relevant context in order to validate claims.
To ensure that we are dealing with reliable information, it’s important to learn the differences between clearly identifiable factual information and the more suspicious speculations.
Signs that you’re dealing with fake news:
- Lack of referenced sources
- No mention of reputable, official or scientific references or reports
- No alternative facts or opinions
- A simple story used to describe a highly complex issue
- The story sounds too good to be true, sensationalist or too fatalistic
Fake news, myths and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and its spread are rife, so we’ve selected some of the most widespread fake news stories and conspiracy theories to help make the facts a little clearer.
A lack of clear understanding about the novel coronavirus has seen people turn to all sorts of “remedies” in a desperate bid to ward off this infection.
Some of these “treatments” are not only ineffective, they can have damaging health consequences.
Misinformed social media “influencers” can also play a part in confusing the frightened and vulnerable.
YouTuber Jordan Sather, who has thousands of followers across multiple different platforms, has been claiming that a "miracle mineral supplement", called MMS, can "wipe out" coronavirus.
This product contains chlorine dioxide - a bleaching agent.
In January Sather tweeted that, "not only is chlorine dioxide (aka MMS) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too". This is of course not true.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have formally warned about the health risks of drinking MMS.
Health authorities in other countries have also issued alerts about it.
There have been numerous posts shared on Facebook recommending eating garlic to prevent coronavirus infection.
The WHO (World Health Organization) says that while it is "a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties", there's no evidence that eating garlic can protect people from the new coronavirus.
Another widely spread claim on social media by “medical freedom” groups is “drinkable silver”. This idea was also promoted on US televangelist Jim Bakker's show. Colloidal silver is tiny particles of the metal suspended in liquid.
Advocates of colloidal silver claim it can treat all kinds of health conditions, act as an antiseptic, and state it helps the immune system. There are some occasional uses of silver in healthcare, for example in bandages applied to wounds, but that doesn't mean it's effective to consume.
The US health authorities state that there is no evidence this type of silver solution is an effective treatment for any health condition - especially not the new coronavirus. More importantly, it could cause serious side effects including kidney damage, seizures and argyria - a condition that makes your skin turn blue.
It is well-known that eating fruit and vegetables and drinking water can be good for staying healthy. However, there is no evidence specific foods or “remedies” will help fight this particular virus.
Coronavirus conspiracy theories can be found in all corners of the internet. Perhaps one of the most prominent hoaxes is that the virus could be a bioweapon.
Speculations have been spread by people in authority, such as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who suggested that the virus may have been produced as a biological weapon by a Chinese weapons lab.
Claims that suggest the new coronavirus was created as a bioweapon are unsubstantiated.
There is no evidence to suggest or assume that it is a biological weapon.
Biological weapons are microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced in a laboratory and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.
Many scientists are currently studying SARS-CoV-2 in depth. The sequencing structure of this coronavirus genome has now been discovered, which shows no signs that the virus was designed in a laboratory.
“Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife”, says a report published in The Lancet.
There are a number of false claims that the virus SARS-CoV-2 existed before the first known cases in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
A video broadcast on TGR the Italian state-owned broadcast service in 2015 has been circulating on social media due to claims that it “confirms” that China created viruses which can affect the human body from a protein taken from bats and mice. The TV host is seen to repeatedly cite the word 'coronavirus' - which reportedly made the video viral on social media - as conspiracy theory enthusiasts were quick to start linking the video from 2015 to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The video actually refers to a study published by the journal Nature that shows an experiment in which a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus was created. Scientists in this case investigated a virus called SHC014, which is found in horseshoe bats in China.
This specific coronavirus is not related to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
It is important to remember that coronaviruses are a family of viruses.
Perhaps the most well-known examples of coronaviruses include SARS-CoV, which caused the outbreak of SARS in 2002 and MERS-CoV, which resulted in Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Including the most recently discovered SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19), there are seven known human coronaviruses. There are also other types of coronaviruses that specifically infect animals.
The first known reference to a coronavirus dates back to 1965. A patient in Greece was identified as having the respiratory infection called 229E. This infection is now known as one type of common cold.
Another conspiracy theory that scientists knew about COVID-19 and “predicted” the onset of a pandemic was linked to a Johns Hopkins Institute of Health conference held in October 2019.
The conference, Event 201, saw experts reflect on the capacity for humanity to cope with any potential pandemic. Once again these claims were fabricated.
SARS-CoV-2 was an unknown virus until late 2019, which means it makes little sense to suggest that a vaccine could have already been developed to contend with this infection.
All drugs have to pass comprehensive tests before they are approved for use. In general they are first tested on animals, and then enter three stages of “clinical trials” on humans.
If a vaccine is to be given to billions of people, it must have a good safety profile.
One of the most famous COVID-19 vaccine hoaxes is a claim that philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates already possessed this vaccine as of 2015. The couple had in fact patented a vaccine designed to treat a specific type of coronavirus affecting birds - not COVID-19.
There is no indication that the COVID-19 vaccine is already patented and being consciously withheld from the population.
The WHO states that the virus that causes COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. These droplets are too heavy to hang in the air.
The infected large respiratory droplets measure more than 0.0002 inches in diameter. This means after a person coughs or sneezes these droplets will quickly fall to the floor or onto surfaces.
It is understood that a person can be infected by breathing in the virus if you are within one metre of a person who has COVID-19, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.
The new coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2), like any other virus, needs an organic host to reproduce and survive. It spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.
This would suggest that the virus could not live on “non-living” surfaces (such as an object or door handle), but this is not strictly true. While the virus requires a living host for it to survive for long periods of time, it is understood that coronavirus can survive on surfaces and objects for varying lengths of time.
This means the virus could be spread by a person touching a surface or object with the virus on it and then proceeding to touch their mouth, nose, or eyes.
To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Also, avoid close contact with anyone who is coughing and sneezing.
It is also advisable to disinfect packages bought from a supermarket or any other shop that could be contaminated. Wiping with a clean cloth moistened with soapy water or a drop of bleach should do the trick. If using bleach, be extremely careful not to place directly onto food products.
There is no current evidence that coronavirus is spread through food.
The news of the first tiger to test positive for COVID-19 alarmed many people into thinking that other cats, such as domestic pet cats, could contract the virus and infect humans.
There is no evidence to suggest that domestic cats or other pets can transmit the virus to humans.
It is understood that the transmission of COVID-19 from bats to humans is likely to have been as a result of consumption and ingestion not respiratory contact.
The journal Nature published a report in March suggesting that cats could be more susceptible to contracting the virus than dogs, though cats are not considered to have high contagion levels.
There is a lot of confusion and controversy about the use of masks.
It is important to note that there are different types of masks and not all of them offer the same type of protection.
Homemade fabric masks made from loose fabric structures can allow pathogens or a significant amount of pathogens to pass through them, so they are generally not considered effective in protecting against coronavirus.
FFP (“Filtering face piece particles”) and N95 respirators provide up to 96% protection against pathogens such a virus or bacteria - if worn correctly. They have complex fabric structure to prevent the passage of microorganisms and create a sealed area around the nose and mouth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19). Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first-responders.
Surgical masks, those most typically used by health-care workers, is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment.
Surgical masks are made in different thicknesses and with different ability to protect the user from contact with liquids. These properties may also affect how easy it is to breathe through the face mask and how well the surgical mask protects the user.
If worn properly, a surgical mask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks are not intended to be used more than once.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that only two groups of people should wear protective masks, those who are: sick and showing symptoms or caring for people suspected to have coronavirus
It says medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.
Masks are not recommended for the general public because they can be contaminated by other people's coughs and sneezes, or when putting them on or removing them, frequent hand-washing and social distancing are more effective and the use of mask may offer a false sense of security causing a lapse in other vital preventive measures - such as distancing.
You can read more about the use of masks during the coronavirus pandemic here.
Some scientific groups have spoken out about the suspicion that the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), along with certain treatments for high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes could aggravate clinical cases of COVID-19.
The WHO states on their website (19 April 2020) that at present there is no evidence of severe adverse events, acute health care utilisation, long-term survival, or quality of life in patients with COVID-19, as a result of the use of NSAIDs.
Belief in one conspiracy also tends to lead to an increased belief in others. Experts warn these myths may not only worsen the current pandemic crisis, but could out live it.
Read more myth busting information on the WHO website.